A Curious Sort of Gratitude for A Difficult Year

My mother, when she was younger and healthier, chilling a watermelon in a Central Texas river.

The last year has been rocky.

Joyful at times. Devastating at others. A non-stop learning experience.

Most of this emotional roller coaster has centered on my elderly mother’s move from East Texas to here. We started planning it over a year ago, intending to place her in an assisted living center just five minutes away. This came after over five years of attempting to persuade her to leave her home of 30 years.

See, she is severely crippled–deformed even–by Rheumatoid Arthritis. The disease is her curse; she worries (needlessly) that it is now my burden.

It is our challenge.

Me and Mom in the early '70s. This was supposed to be a portrait of me, but I cried and cried. So she joined me. I'm so happy that she did.

In a cruel twist, the RA that has ravaged her body has preserved, stimulated even, her mind. This means that she is acutely aware of and sensitive to what is happening to her once long, robust skeletal frame. This means too that she maintained a confident air that she could manage her own affairs and stay in her own home past the point comfortable for most people.

An emergency room trip on New Year’s Eve–as I was literally en route to help her move–changed all of our well-laid plans at the assisted living center. She was gravely ill, and yet I had to persuade the hospital to admit her. (Later test results would prove that I was right. She was indeed far more ill than the ER doc realized.)

Plan A was scrapped. Enter Plan B.

Today she lives in a nursing home 15 miles away.

She’s close enough now that I no longer dread a call from the Sheriff’s Office in the wee hours. That was the nightmare scenario that plagued me for years, the one where I dream that I have to beg someone far away to break down the door to get her out of her house.  (These are the tortured dreams of the long-distance caregiver, the people that others assume have abandoned their elderly loved ones but who will move heaven and earth to get their parents into a safer environment.)

Her current facility is far enough away that I feel guilty on the days when I don’t visit her, even though she expresses marvel that I make the trip–with a lively and talkative small child in tow–as often as I do.

I know for a fact that if and when she needs to be rushed to the hospital–and assuming that I can find a kind neighbor willing to accept an extra kiddo for a few hours, I can be at the emergency room not long after the ambulance arrives. I can also stand by and watch a tube remove fluids and other things from her GI tract without feeling the bile in my own stomach rise up. (Once you’ve changed enough diapers, you never really go back to being grossed out by bodily functions.) And I know now that I can stand by her bedside, sobbing (who knew that one can cry horizontal tears like lasers?) once when the doctor says its Stage 4 cancer and she should plan for the end. And I can cry again (joyfully) the very next morning when the same doctor leaps out at me with the news that “It’s not cancer! I told you the tests can lie! We can fix this!”

I can weep some days from what is described as “anticipatory grief.” Yes, I feel the absence of her although she has yet to leave me. It’s a horrid feeling.

I’ve also been angry on a couple of occasions this year. I watched my mother struggling for consciousness in a hospital SICU last spring, trying to locate the call button which someone has oh-so-thoughtfully tied up behind her bed making it hard even for me, a wholly able-bodied person, to find it. I have watched her radiate relief when only minutes later I return from the hallway with her top-flight surgeon–he who shakes up the SICU staff just by walking through the doors–and he quickly, efficiently gets my mother a private room with round-the-clock individual care by sunset.

Just before Thanksgiving, I sat in that same ER near here while she expressed anger and frustration at the pain searing through her mid-section. I sat beside her and repeated calmly the mantra: “We cannot have ice chips, Mom. Or water. No, we cannot have anything by mouth.” I visited with Dr. Google on an iPad2 while we await word from a radiologist.  I watched her body tremble from spasms. I saw her pupils contract as her body enter septic shock. I’ve heard the doctor say “Your mother’s condition is seriously critical.”

She’s recovering from that experience now and waiting for another major procedure, so we’ve got some difficult moments ahead of us in 2012. But it would be wrong to think of ours as an especially bleak world.

My mother was glamorous when she was young. No small wonder that she *insists* that I keep up my hair appointments: "Honey, I swear I get better care from the doctors when you cover your roots."

When I was little, I wanted red shoes like these.

Over the last year, I’ve also seen her face light up with tales of her cousins’ visit, phone calls, the appearance of the local church ladies who have adopted her. I’ve watched her look at two of her capable, efficient nurse’s aides with the love and appreciation I–an only child–know for certain is evidence of a motherly and deep regard. I have watched my son and her as they watch Tom and Jerry, she in her wheelchair and he hanging off the back of it.

All this I know but what I can’t predict is the future… if the next day or week or month or year will be her last… if or when the call will come that I need to move quickly–or “Sorry, ma’am” it’s already too late.

But I know for certain that whatever comes, she and I are strong. A force. She’s asked me twice if we’re “okay.” She worries about what I might wish to have said–or asked–after she’s gone. I told her both times that we’re so clear and free that it’s probably illegal. No regrets. As it should be.

When I stand alone on the other side of this–as surely I will do, I hope to find comfort in the darkness just by knowing that we both gave one another our very best, even during some of the worst moments of our respective lives.

We continue to be present and open and collaborative.

And that’s why I am grateful already for this last, painful year.

I am extraordinarily grateful for every single moment.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “A Curious Sort of Gratitude for A Difficult Year

  1. This is a beautiful post, Pamela — tears. Your mom is beautiful, and she sounds like such a strong, amazing woman — like mother, like daughter, apparently. Thanks for sharing this with us. It brought back memories of my grandmother and how much I cherish the time we spent together, even the hard, heartbreaking times.

  2. poprice

    Thank you, Colleen. It was painful to write and still painful to read. But I put it out into the universe in hopes that maybe someone else on this journey or about to start a similar one reads it and realizes that this, too, is part of living.

  3. Oh Pamela…what a beautiful–and heartbreaking–post. I’m so glad for you that she is nearby now, with good care–even though it’s not what you initially planned. I’m so sorry for the physical pain your mother is in, but I’m so glad you have her “mentally.” When my mother passed, we had lost her years before due to Alzheimer’s Disease. There’s so much I wish we could have discussed…and I wish she could have known our youngest two children, because they were strangers to her. Many, many hugs to you…watching our loved ones suffer is the most difficult part of living.

    P.S. I love her spunk about keeping your hair appointments! Mothers, yeesh! ;-)

  4. I wrote a similar post a couple of weeks ago, about not wanting to leave things to chance and become a burden to my kids, and about how to know when it’s time to let go of this hill country house that we love so dearly, and move to a place “more manageable”. Just a few days later, before I could post it on my blog, my hubby had his first stroke (I say “first” because people rarely have just one), and now I don’t have the nerve to post it. I fear it might break his heart, if he knew the thoughts and fears running through my head right now.

  5. Oh, Becky. My heart goes out to you. It took me 8 weeks to get the nerve to post this. My mom is very sick now with pneumonia. I almost pulled it. But then I also felt that I needed to get the words out of my head at last.

    Love to you and your husband.

  6. Courage: feeling fear, yet doing what needs to be done anyways. Brave post.

  7. speechless. So many words you share fill my heart with the knowledge that there are probably things unsaid or unasked with my own father and his illness. My husband, having lost both his parents, had time with them to make that peace, I believe. Lots of love, my beautiful friend and to your lovely mother, also. It is what is in our hearts that makes us beautiful regardless of what any illness can do to our bodies. But, alas, I am sure you know that already. :-)

  8. poprice

    Ladies: Your words have brought me such comfort and joy today. I’m so glad that I bit the ol’ bullet and shared this story.

    Imagine a group hug, please!

  9. Pamela, this is a brave, courageous, beautiful, post and a tribute to a woman who raised an amazing daughter who’s raising an incredible son. I teared up reading this for what you and your mom are going through and have been through as well as the strength you both share. But I also shed tears for me and my mom. She has Parkinson’s and has been slowly deteriorating for a few years now. When she broke her hip in 2010 we almost lost her. We didn’t and I am so very grateful, but a fair amount of her memory and some simple cognitive functions are gone. Your line, “Yes, I feel the absence of her although she has yet to leave me. It’s a horrid feeling.” is one I completely identify with and, at the same time, deny.

    Thank you for being brave enough, caring enough to post this.

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  12. Pamela

    I somehow missed this when you first posted it. It’s an amazing tribute to a strong, wonderful woman, but also a testimony to the woman that you are. It is so special for her and Tater to be able to share those times together. My sweet girl, who only vaguely remembers my mom, can tell you quite vividly about going to see Grandma Faye and sitting with her in wheelchair while they watched whatever Disney Channel served up.

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  14. Robin Moehring Hayles

    Pamela, your poignant post brought back so many memories of my own beautiful mother’s last few weeks, and especially, one of the last things I remember her saying as I left her room…”and I love you too, honey!” She wasn’t one to express that kind of emotion, so hearing it a few days before she left us was especially touching from her. That was the same day she had said, after seeing my pregnant daughter and granddaughter, her grand and great granddaughters, “this is what I’ve been waiting for”. It was only after she died that I realized what those words meant. It’s been two and a half years, but it still hurts so much. Please talk to her and ask her questions about her childhood, her young adult life, how your parents met and courted. Those are memories I’ll treasure forever. Good luck and may peace be with you and her through this time.

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